There has never been anything like it in human history. Then again, the internet is the perfect tool for officials to monitor and censor material.
Every day in China, hundreds of messages are sent from government offices to website editors around the country that say things like, “Report on the new provincial budget tomorrow, but do not feature it on the front page, make no comparisons to earlier budgets, list no links, and say nothing that might raise questions”; “Downplay stories on Kim Jung-un’s facelift”; and “Allow stories on Deputy Mayor Zhang’s embezzlement but omit the comment boxes.” Why, one might ask, do censors not play it safe and immediately block anything that comes anywhere near offending Beijing? Why the modulation and the fine-tuning?
In fact, for China’s Internet police, message control has grown to include many layers of meaning. Local authorities have a toolbox of phrases—fairly standard nationwide—that they use to offer guidance to website editors about dealing with sensitive topics. The harshest response is “completely and immediately delete.” But with the rapid growth of difficult-to-control social media, a need has arisen for a wide range of more subtle alternatives. For stories that are acceptable, but only after proper pruning, the operative phrase is “first censor, then publish.” For sensitive topics on which central media have already said something, the instructions may say “reprint Xinhua but nothing more.” For topics that cannot be avoided because they are already being widely discussed, there are such options as “mention without hyping,” “publish but only under small headlines,” “put only on back pages,” “close the comment boxes,” and “downplay as time passes.”
We know all this thanks in large part to Xiao Qiang, an adjunct professor at the School of Information at Berkeley, who leads the world in ferreting out and piecing together how Chinese Internet censorship works. Xiao and his staff have collected and organized a repository of more than 2,600 directives that website editors across China have received during the last ten years. Some are only a line or two long; others run to many pages. Some are verbatim, others are paraphrases. Some were collected from Twitter, Sina Weibo (China’s domestic Twitter), and Internet forums, while others were sent to Xiao by editors in China who were frustrated or angry—either at what the directives said or at the fact of censorship itself.
And as Xiao has discovered, the new censorship strategies show the government’s growing awareness of the power of social media. Informal news stories—often accompanied by photos from smart phones—now spread widely and quickly enough that official media lose credibility if they do not at least mention them. In such cases, “on the back page” might be the best option. Moreover, Web users now understand Internet censorship well enough that the issue can itself be one that angers them. (The traditional print and electronic media are censored, too, but directives for them arrive via unrecorded telephone calls, which are much harder to trace and seldom leak. Because the Internet is too large to manage by telephone, its directives go out in writing.) Under the scrutiny of Web users, propaganda officials face the unwelcome task of censoring the Internet while trying to appear as though they are not—or at least not doing it “unreasonably.” This forces them to seek balance. In one instance, a story about two policemen who were killed in an auto accident got out on the social media; censors anticipated an outcry if they “completely and immediately deleted,” so they allowed the story to appear but added the instruction “close comment boxes”—apparently from fear that the boxes might fill with cheers of the kind that normally spring from generalized resentment of the police.
But as Xiao has revealed, the censors expend even more effort on the parallel task of “guiding” expression in pro-government directions. When a story reflects well on the Party, Web editors receive instructions to “place prominently on the home page” or “immediately recirculate.” Authorities also organize and pay for artificial pro-government expression in chat rooms and comment boxes. Provincial and local offices of External Propaganda and Party Propaganda hire staff at salaries of about US $100 per month (less, for part-time work) to post pro-government comments. It is hard to say how many salaried commenters exist nationwide, but estimates run to the high 100,000s. Some of this commenting is outsourced as piece-work. A few years ago, people who agreed to do this work were given the satiric label “fifty-centers” because they were said to be paid fifty Chinese cents per post. By now there are commercial enterprises that contract for comment work. Even prisons do it; prisoners can earn sentence reductions for producing set numbers of pro-government comments.